Last month I visited my family in America for the first time in quite a while. I didn’t bring any books with me so that I might instead read something from my stateside shelf. Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects immediately stood out. I hadn’t actually read it cover-to-cover until then. With many of its 232 pages devoted to large photographs, drawings, and other graphics, I managed to get through Information Architects in only a couple of days. I wrote the following reading notes and thoughts soon after:

  • I’ll definitely need to add the below video to my “Watch Later” list. Information Architects opens with a heartfelt dedication to Muriel Cooper, a designer at MIT whose “Information Landscapes” presentation at the TED5 Conference “changed forever the visual paradigm of information for all who saw the presentation,” according to Wurman. It’s incredible that the very same presentation that so heavily influenced Wurman – and thus, our whole field – is readily available.
  • The front cover of the book prominently features a three-part definition of “information architect” that I’ve seen quoted a million times, but the back inside flap offers a concise summation of “information architecture” that I’m surprised I haven’t seen referenced more often. “The design of understanding.” That’s it! Can you come up with a better, more straightforward description of IA?
  • Somehow this detail was lost on me up until now, but most of the book is a collaborative effort between Richard Saul Wurman, his editor Peter Bradford, and a couple dozen other designers. Wurman reached out to a number of designers and asked for “extended and I mean extended captions” of specific examples of their work, and the pieces were compiled and designed into this book.
  • Each section of the book highlights a designer or team of designers and walks us through how they were faced with a topic that needed clarification and how they went about creatively clarifying that topic with their design skills. These design challenges ranged from city maps to museum exhibits to product brochures to CD-ROM encyclopedias. Only one of the examples had to do with organizing content on a web site. The case study pattern of organization suits the book well.
  • The diversity of domains featured in the book leads one to believe that information architects are all around us (whether the IAs themselves realize it or not), yet the foreword curiously describes a “relatively small world of information architects.”
  • Instead of going step-by-step into how one can practice information architecture, the book serves as a collection of examples of how creative, thoughtful structuring of information led to better understanding. As a source of inspiration, Information Architects is good; as a textbook, not so much.
  • The book concludes with a dramatic example of the clear value of information architecture: Alexander Tsiaras explains how a three-dimensional volume rendering of the brain enabled by CT scanning allowed surgeons to perform a cranial operation on a child. (“Surgeons say that before volume rendering, surgery was like walking into a dark room and feeling your way around the furniture. Now it’s like walking into a room, turning on the lights, and seeing exactly where you’re going.” Page 227). This new way of visualizing data let radiologists, whom Tsiaras likens to “hermetic cubists and abstract expressionists” speak in a language familiar to surgeons, whom Tsiaras compares to sculptors.
  • Some of the examples are very much a product of their time. This book was released in 1997 and it shows. Peter Bradford’s attempt at a “curriculum dictionary” that attempted to completely reorganize a dictionary in such a way that readers could identify and traverse related word groups seemed like an unavoidably messy attempt at something that only Wikipedia could eventually accomplish, which is to say a bottom-up information architecture.

The job of an encyclopedia is to explain, isn’t it? Well, how can that be done best? With vertically deep, exhaustively detailed explanations like the Encyclopedia Brittanica, or with horizontally broad, relational explanations like the Curriculum Dictionary? Maybe both? Yes, I think so, too. But, how does one build such a mass of linked knowledge?

Page 73

We made context pictures for easily pictured word groups like Bodies of Water, tables and typographic diagrams for less easily pictured groups like Poetry. Very quickly, our representations multiplied and grew to unwieldy size. They began to crowd the alphabetic section, making it jumpy and difficult to use. To accommodate them, we tacked on a group of pages after the alphabetic section and called it our topic section. Well, not so easy, Sneezy. Topically arranged reference is neither familiar nor encouraged by American publishers. In fact, splitting the dictionary into two sections was to become our most provocative change. But how could we deny the logic?

Page 71. This particular project was ahead of its time.